European Championships 2002:
The Test Pieces
Date Posted: 28.04.02
» 'Chain' by Piet Swerts
» 'Excalibur' by Jan van der Roost
Since the inception of the European Championships in 1978 there
have been a whole raft of new works that have been commissioned
by the organisers to test the competing bands.
Some have been superb works, whilst it would also be fair to suggest
that some have also been a little below par. Some have entered the
main stream of the brass band contesting repertoire whilst others
have disappeared quicker than Hear Says second
album. However, you must take your hat off to the European organisers
for the way in which each year they have tried to bring new, exciting
and talented composers to the forefront of our musical consciousness.
Without the European Championships doing this, the whole of the
brass band movement would be the poorer so thanks.
This of course is not to say that all the works have been new age
classics and some have been stinkers of world-class
variety, but overall the works used over the years have enriched
our repertoire. For every Five Blooms in a Welsh Garden
or Red Earth we have been fortunate to have got
Montreux Wind Dances, Seid and this years
Chain by Piet Swerts.
So with this in mind, we have had a good look (and listen) to the
new work from the pen of the composer entrusted to challenge the
best bands in Europe. A little like Juke Box Jury all
those years ago, we will either give it a thumbs up Hit,
or as a metaphor for failure, well hold our nose with our
left hand and pull an imaginary toilet chain with our right if we
think it should be consigned down the pan to the musical equivalent
of Room 101.
First of all Who is Piet Swerts? His biography off the EBBA
website reads as follows:
Piet Swerts (1960) belongs to the younger generation of Belgian
composers and works in many musical fields. He studied piano, orchestra,
conducting, and composition at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven.
There he was awarded many prizes including the Lemmens Tinel Prize
for piano and composition. Today, he is a teacher of piano, analysis,
and composition at his old seat of learning. Swerts is also the
conductor of the ensemble "Nieuwe Muziek" ("New Music").
Swerts' compositions have attracted many prizes. He won the "Sabam
Prize" for "Rotations for Piano and Orchestra," a
composition that was the test piece at the Queen Elizabeth Concours
in 1987. In 1993, he once again composed a piece for violin and
orchestra for the famous competition "Zodiac-Ephimeris."
His compositions are quite varied, reaching from major symphonic
works to intimate chamber music.
by Piet Swerts
The EBBA website also offers the following explanation of his work:
Chain was composed between June and August 2000, after
a thorough study of brass bands by the composer. The Flemish Brass
Band Federation commissioned the piece for the European Brass Band
Championship of 2002.
The composer's idea was to make a one-movement piece - a work that
starts mysteriously, and then develops further in various directions.
As his basic material, he chose a figure that is the abbreviation
of the European Brass Band Championship: EBBC. This figure is developed
in a chain of figures that leads further and further to the climax
of the piece, which is the end. As a basic compositional concept,
Piet Swerts chose the chain principle. Within a musical course,
a period or movement develops and leads toward a musical character.
Usually at the end of such a musical period, a new musical figure
appears that is derived from the preceding figure. The same figure
now forms the link to the next musical phrase. The advantage of
this principle is that many variations can be made without loss
of the composition's unity. This primarily fast-moving piece also
includes a lyrical movement in which cantabile playing dominates.
The work concludes with a virtuoso ride, built on a hammering ostinato
in the timpani, with solos for brass players as well as the xylophone.
The piece ends vigorously.
With this all in mind then, this is what we at 4BR thought. Get
ready with the thumbs up or Down the Pan.
The first thing that strikes you about the piece is that it looks
hard, although when you give it closer scrutiny youll find
that just because there is a whole cornucopia of semi and demi semi
quavers liberally splashed around with more gay abandon than Henry
Cooper used to splash around his Brut aftershave, it is surprisingly
easy for players to read.
Due to the tempos and the way in which most of the time signatures
are constructed, much of the content can be doubled in value. Thus,
demi semi quaver runs written in 2/4 time or semi quavers written
in 4/8 can be read as semi quaver or quavers. After a few run throughs
the process makes the notation very transparent and technically
The Chain idea comes from the likes of composers such
as Lutoslawski who used chain composition in his works.
The general idea is that things link together through the use of
different motifs in that the end of one motif is in fact the beginning
of the next. Simple really???!
The work starts marked Misterioso with the timp giving
the underlying musical theme of EBBC (which stands for European
Brass Band Championship). This notation forms the body of all the
subsequent themes as each new chain has in some way
the notation EBBC within it.
The basses have a Pines of Rome moment right at the
start before the euphs and baritones sing out a rather elegiac motif
that is underscored by small interruptions from horn, baritone and
flugel and a busy demi semi quaver figure from the cornet section.
Its all very quite though and does come across very well indeed.
All this builds to the first Maestoso which is loud
and proclaims the next link in the chain.
10 bars of this and the next link appears in the form of an Agitato
section marked quaver= quaver and in 4/8 time. Here comes the start
of the tricky bits as the sop and solo cornets have a very difficult
almost fanfare part that could become split city very
quickly. It moves on very quickly with the euph taking over the
tune (again with reference to the EBBC motif) before another real
tester for the top end with further fanfares which feature leaps
of ninths and octaves.
The next chain starts with a section marked Capriccioso
and it here that you start getting the feeling that there are more
changes of mood than a schizophrenic off his medication too long.
Its marked 7/16 and has a 2/3/2 beat pattern throughout. Thats
the easy part.
Above this is perhaps one of the hardest tenor horn solos of all
time one which will we are sure caused many a sleepless night
and knackered lips. Quite beautifully constructed, it asks the soloist
to play to a cantabile style whilst simultaneously exploring
the outer limits of the range. It never quite links in time with
the underlying 7/16 foundation and so is free and languid to encourage
virtuoso playing. Become too much of a Diva though and the wheels
will fall off. It is devilishly bloody difficult. The trombone solo
sounds very strongly like the beginning of the Anniversary
The flugal also has a joining chain straight after this
and once again the complexity is to be found in maintaining the
feel of free flowing singing style above a very mechanical
base. This moves along with further complexities from the cornets
in the form of alternating runs before a climax in 4/8 that brings
us to the next link in the chain.
Marked Andante tranquillo quaver = quaver it starts
with the flugal setting out the next thematic germ before the sop
enters on high and goes a bit higher before dropping with Icarus
like alacrity from a top Cb down to bottom Bb. (Thanks Piet!). The
flow continues through a section marked Un poco piu mosso
before the euph end things with a quasi cadenza marked Nervoso.
Lots of waw waw muted stuff from the cornets and troms is a neat
and clever feature around here and overall this section is perhaps
the crux of the whole piece.
Now its the long ride for home, with the final link marked
Molto Energico. This section is about 375 bars or so
and marks the final section of Chain. Its almost
an up tempo march in character nearly all in 2/4 time and
can sound a little repetitive in places as certain motifs appear
and reappear time and time again.
Theres plenty of good old running about for the bass end though
(the lads will be happy around here, because a lot of the time they
are not doing much at all, except revelling in other discomfort
now's the pay back time!) and this section will need a close
scrutiny of the markings as many notes have a Heinz 57 variety of
All along the poor old timp player is whacking out an ostinato line
that for some reason has been written out bar for bar instead of
putting in a repeat sign or two. Strange. The tuned percussion however
will certainly be earning their fee, as the xylophone will be performing
technical acrobatics for very nearly every bar to the end. Its
tricky, very tricky stuff and it will have to be clean and tidy
for it to sound good. You cant get away with hitting any old
bit of wood here.
On and on it goes, louder and quicker and plenty of opportunities
to show off clean and clear articulation and technique, before we
come to a bonkers bit, when just about every person in the band
gets to play individual shock notes marked sfz. They come in very
loud, high, or low, joined in a group or standing alone. Things
could have been going swimmingly up to here and then there could
be more splashes and accidents than can be found in the mens toilets
after ten pints of Stella Artois. If you escape without a blemish
here, then count yourselves blessed indeed.
A further repeat of the same motifs follow before we come to the
end by which time lips will be knackered and heads thumping.
The last few bars sees falling chromatic runs before a big chord
(sop on a top c#) a final chromatic run down for all the band and
three whacked out semi quavers to end it all. And thats it.
And what do we think?
Overall its a very fine very different piece. Plenty
to commend, especially the idea itself of the linked chain of musical
events, with some of the writing being inspired. But the last section
for us is perhaps the weakest link. Its a little long and
repetitive to keep the interest of the players and listeners and
is almost universally loud in character. This makes it very monochrome
in colour, which is a pity as there are so many hidden layers in
the parts that could come out if it wasnt for the sheer volume
of whats going on.
Two thirds of the piece is quite superb and the last third not too
bad so in overall terms against the type of works most bands
play, that means a pretty good test piece. Interesting and certainly
not run of the mill. We give it a thumbs up, and no fault will be
placed against the composer, if there are more than a few performances
that will be more toilet chain than 24 carat golden necklace. Well
done to the European Championships though for bringing us another
work that creates interest.
by Jan van der Roost
The First Section set work this year comes from the pen of Jan Van
der Roost, the talented composer who brought us the very fine Albion
We dont really know much of the piece ourselves, so we have
let Mr Van der Roost explain in his own notes.
Jan van der Roost was born in Duffel, Belgium in 1956. He studied
trombone, history of music and musical education at the Lemmensinstituut
in Leuven (Louvain) and continued his studies at the Royal Conservatories
of Ghent and Antwerp, where he qualified as a conductor and a composer.
At present, he teaches at the Lemmensinstitutt in Leuven, Belgium,
and is quest professor at the Shobi Institute of Music in Tokyo,
Besides being a prolific composer, he is very much in demand as
an adjudicator, lecturer, clinician and a guest conductor. His musical
activities brought him to more than 35 different countries in 4
continents, whereas his compositions are being performed and recorded
in more than 50 nations world-wide. His list of works shows a wide
variety of genres and styles, including two oratorios, a symphony
and some smaller works for symphony orchestra. Also, a guitar concerto
dedicated to Joachim Rodrigo, a concerto for trumpet and string
orchestra dedicated to Walter and Anne Boeykens, a cycles of Lieder
(songs) for baritone and chamber orchestra, chamber music, numerous
brass and wind band compositions, choral music and instrumental
Many of these compositions have been broadcast on radio and TV,
and most of them have been recorded on CD by renowned performers
in several countries all over the world. Jan van der Roost exclusively
composes commissioned works, until now from countries like Belgium,
Holland, Switzerland, Italy, the USA, Japan, France, Singapore,
Norway, Germany, Finland and Hungary.
Excalibur has been awarded in the Adolphe Sax Composition
Contest, organised by the Flemish Brass Band Association in
1987. It was selected to be the test piece in the 1st division during
the 1991 National Championships in Bergen (Norway) and in the B-division
during the European Brass Band Championships 2002 in Brussels (Belgium).
As the title already explains, the direct inspiration for this work
was the legendary sword of King Arthur. One can roughly distinguish
3 sections, each one with its own musical themes and subjects. This
wealth of musical ideas is directly connected with the fact that
several extra-musical qualities of King Arthur himself and his sword
are depicted, just like velocity, nimbleness and power, to name
only those. The expressive slow section breathes the generosity
of King Arthur as well as his love to Guinevre.
However, EXCALIBUR is no program-music in the strict
sense of the word as no concrete story is told: the composer only
tried to express the somewhat magic atmosphere around this medieval
subject. Technically and rhythmically it is a pretty challenging
work which also calls for a good stamina. The percussion section
got the composers full attention, adding a lot of colours
and effects to the entire work. There are no virtuoso cadenzas
but several solo instruments get the opportunity to show their lyrical
qualities during the middle section (euphonium, baritone, soprano
cornet, tenor horn and solo cornet). EXCALIBUR has proved to be
an attractive work and is played and recorded all over the brass
band world nowadays, obviously pleasing both performers as well
as audiences world-wide.